Friday, November 27, 2015

79th and Hillside

There was a long time of great turbulence and conflict for my family and me when we lived on 79th & Hillside in East Oakland. There seemed to be an air of hostility that saturated the environment. Even when we were not directly involved in the violence, someone we knew was, and if not them, then those who lived around us.

Constant fist fights, stabbings, and shootings felt so common place that as a child that is what constituted “normal” for me. People being hurt, and hurting others was a daily reality. Looking back I frequently feel bad for my older siblings because they had to constantly wade through turmoil on nearly a daily basis. However, I realize tears for the past are wasted.

My two brothers found themselves running afoul of one particular group of local troublemakers who were used to bullying the surrounding neighborhoods. So, when they attempted to do the same to my second-oldest brothers, the would-be aggressor found himself on the end of sweet chin music, promptly followed by a stomping-good sonata, that left him embarrassed and indignant.

Of course this led to him gathering his side. This resulted in my brothers having to do the same. A string of violent encounters eventually accumulated to the very brazen act of our home being on the receiving end of numerous gunshots one night. We were forced to dive to the floor as bullets tore through the plaster of our walls, and shattered more than one window. No one was hurt. But as if to truly bring home just how terrible the entire event was, we later found a bullet hole directly through my youngest sister’s crib.

A line had been crossed that night. Up until that point the incidents were numerous skirmishes fought with fists. Now, like almost every conflict ever fought by us hairless, psychotic primates on this planet, it was just going to escalate much further.

Perhaps they felt emboldened by the earlier strike. Three young men from the opposing side confronted my second-oldest brother one early evening as he stood on the corner outside our home. It was only him and I at the time. I recall it was the sort of overcast day that turns the sky into one big, dull gray sheet. As they argued and threatened one another, I remember being frightened the three would attack him at once.

I was 12 at most and I was no fighter. Not in the sense that I had not been taught how to take care of myself but in the sense that I just did not like fighting. But in my fear I grabbed a metal bat and watched from the front porch. I was uncertain to what I could do but despite the panic I felt, I knew I would have to try to do something if they started fighting.

The arguing only grew more volatile. An intense garble of sharp, loud words coming out as dares, threats and swears. Both young men inched closer as if they were waiting for some sign of fear or weakness but my brother stood his ground. I have no doubt if he backed down, if even a little, such would have emboldened them, and all three would have been on him before you could say “emergency room”.

Just when it was at its worst, just when I knew things were about to get extremely ugly, I heard the familiar sounds of a swiftly approaching engine. It was my older cousin’s Cutlass. It was a modified, sleek and aggressive vehicle that announced itself a block away with the constantly growling engine.

Apparently he was coming for a visit but caught sight of what was transpiring, causing him to floor-it from down the street. The sight of his car filled me with such a sense of relief. I knew without a doubt he would help. Close to the house my cousin recklessly drove up onto the sidewalk, slammed on his breaks, and jumped out of the car.

“What the fuck is this shit?” He demanded angrily as he walked from around the vehicle.

“Fuck you, nigga. Nobody is scared of you.” The lead instigator, a tall skinny kid, announced boldly as he stepped ahead of his two friends. “You can have some too if you want it.”

“Is that right?” My cousin suddenly produced a handgun. After so much shooting it would seem he was taking no chances. One of the young men instantly took his chances bolting, leaving his two friends to whatever fate was about to lay upon them.

“I don’t have anything! I don’t have anything!” The instigator yelled fearfully with his hands at his sides.

“That’s your stupid ass fault!” My cousin strode pass my brother as he switched his aim between both young men. “You thought you would come over here and just beat the shit out of my cousin with two of your boys?”

“No-- come on. I told you-- I told you I’m not carrying!” The instigator replied as he took a step back.

“Get the fuck out of here before I give you what he’s about to get!” My cousin smacked the second guy across the head with his weapon so hard he stumbled right holding his jaw with a cry of pain. He instantly followed orders and fled.

“Come on, man-- fuck. It doesn’t have to go down like this.” The instigator half pleaded and reasoned. “I will go--”

“Did I ask you a fucking question?” My cousin suddenly pressed the gun to the side of his head as he partially turned away.

It is one thing to understand the eventual inevitably that we will die someday. But it is a totally different thing to see death abruptly swooping in like a bird of prey with talons ready. I can still clearly recall the way the instigator lowered his head, and slouched his shoulders. The expression on his face was at once defeated, petrified and almost ill. This young man believed he was about to die quite violently.

In his growing desperation the instigator attempted to begin slowly slinking away. My cousin was having none of that. As if to firmly reiterate his point he pressed the gun more firmly against the young man’s skull, causing him to first flinch and then immediately freeze.

“Funny. Now you suddenly don’t have shit to say?” My cousin demanded.

“I’m sorry!” The instigator mumbled submissively with his eyes closed.

“Fuck your sorry.” My cousin replied coldly.

“It’s cool! I’m leaving!” The instigator pleaded.

“Why shouldn’t I just blast you right now?” My cousin swiftly inquired. “Why the fuck shouldn’t I just blow your head off right here?”

“Don’t.” The instigator whimpered and it appeared his legs would give out beneath him at any moment. “Don’t. I’ll go. I’ll leave. Just-- fuck-- don’t.”

“And let you come back later?” My cousin replied with what appeared to be some serious consideration. “No. You will just come back later with some of your people to hurt my family. It would be fucking stupid to let you leave. I’m getting rid of you right now.”

“I won’t! I won’t!” The instigator pleaded more desperately with a quivering voice. He attempted to take another step away. “I swear! Don’t. Don’t. I won’t ever come back!”

“Shut fuck up!” My cousin smacked him across the head with his gun causing the young man to slouch further with a groan of pain. “If ever see you again, anywhere, I don’t give shit where,” He angrily pushed the gun against the back of his skull once more. “I’ll blast you. Do you hear me? If I ever catch you again I won't hesitate to blow your head off!”

“I won’t! I won’t! Just-- just don’t. I’ll leave.” The instigator pleaded.

“Good. Now get the fuck out of here.” My cousin ordered before letting him take a couple more steps, then kicking him in the ass causing the young man to stumble forward. His first few steps away from the brink of death were hesitant as if he did not want to risk making a sudden move that would change his would-be executioner’s mind. Or maybe his tentative pace was weighed by the immense disbelief of what happened. When it became clear to the instigator that he was truly free only then did he run away. I wonder what was going through that young man's mind after coming so close to dying.

“I’m so sick of these muthafuckas.” My brother said angrily as he watched the instigator hurrying off.

“They’re just a bunch of goddamn cowards.” My cousin stated as he put his gun away. “Don’t start shit you can’t finish. If I was scandalous I could have killed him and his boys.”

“Yeah.” My brother admitted thoughtfully. “But it’s good you didn’t. Not because I give a damn about any of them, but because none of those assholes are worth that.”

“Yeah. I know.” My cousin laughed as he began calming down. “All this shit is so stupid.”

Monday, August 10, 2015

A Standing Indignity


It was the sort of day the summer sun is ornery towards everything below it. The sun's sour disposition was infectious, making the occasional winds harsh, hot, and arid. It was like having the calls for relief answered by a spiteful individual who's only solution was to sporadically shoot you in the face with a hair dryer at full blast. On this particular August afternoon in Union City, I was 15, and on my way to Bronco Billy's pizza parlor for both a peperoni slice, and to play the 'Marvel Super Heroes' arcade. With me was two of my best friends, Dolos, and Archon.



We were taking the same shortcut a majority of kids living in that area used; the railroad tracks. On hot days like this the rocks, metal rails, and brick walls visibly wafted with heat. This path shaved off a significant amount of time when going to the local park, school, or stores, but always in exchange for noticeably dusty shoes, making it a smart choice to keep an old rag, or cloth on your person to use at walk's end.



We exited the railroad tracks to the snarl of sluggish traffic that was common at that time of day. Dolos, and Archon were talking about a music album when I noticed a motorcycle cop. I would have mostly ignored him if he had not dramatically slowed his vehicle, and watched us far too closely while passing by. At that moment I instantly became host to a sinking feeling something unpleasant was about to go down.



Hey,” I called to both friends over my shoulder.



What's up?” Dolos asked while laughing about something.



I think we're about to have a problem.” I explained after coming to a stop.



What?” Archon asked as he began looking about. “What's wrong?”



The cop that just passed by is going to come back.” I informed them.



What?” Dolos asked skeptically. “What makes you say that?”



Just then the officer made an apparent U-turn from around the corner, and began driving directly for us. I frowned with bitter resignation. I doubted he was returning to introduce himself, or ask for directions.



Does that answer your question?” I replied to Dolos without taking my eyes off the motorcycle cop.



What the fuck did we do?” Archon asked tensely.



You mean besides for being Black? I honestly have no idea.” I answered truthfully.



Great. Because we need this.” Dolos laughed with vexed disbelief.



Pulling to a stop at the curb only several feet away from us, the cop immediately dismounted his motorcycle, drew his sidearm and took aim in our general direction. While it was scary to have a gun pointed at me this sort of aggression was not new, or even surprising. Maybe I was just very cynical at that age. Or maybe I had a firm understanding how U.S society operated when you had a bit more pigment in your skin. Despite Oakland, and Union City being two wholly separate cities, the situation I was facing made aspects of them identical. Even when a play is constantly preformed on different stages, with a constantly changing cast, that does not make it a new story, as the characters, costumes, and script always remains.


Keep your hands where I can see them, and get down on the ground.” The cop quickly commanded.



Well, isn't this a sonofabitch.” I muttered to myself while beginning to begrudgingly follow the given command.



Wait! What did we do?” Dolos asked in utter surprise.



What's with the gun? We haven't done anything! And we don't have any weapons!” Archon angrily chimed in.



I said get on the FUCKING ground, NOW!” The cop demanded more aggressively.



Don't give him a reason.” I called to both friends on my knees.



Living in Oakland, I had witnessed enough overzealous, violent, and frequently racist cops to know how quickly the situation could escalate over even a perceived minor insult. The miserable irony is that this is exactly how the gang-bangers in my old neighborhood operated as well. “Disrespect them” and they will hurt, or even possibly kill you. The only difference is one side is punished for such a mentality, while the other is awarded, and praised for identical behavior.



I said face down!” The cop harshly added. It would seem even on our knees, with both hands behind our head, the deadly art of negro magic meant we were still somehow a viable threat to him. We of course complied.



So, there we were. Lying face down on a dusty, very hot sidewalk, in the middle of the late afternoon commute, as little more than a spectacle for every passing motorist. To this very day I can only imagine how many adults, saw three Black kids being held at gunpoint by an overzealous cop, and simply figured we were guilty of something that made it perfectly acceptable to point an instrument of death at us. Perhaps, the same way they automatically assumed my friends, and I, were guilty because the color of our skin, they also assumed the cop was justified by nothing more than the office he served.



While we're down here, is it too much to ask why this is happening?” I called over to the cop.



Quiet.” He replied harshly before pulling his radio free to begin speaking with someone.



Bullshit. Complete bullshit.” I heard Dolos mumble.



Good job, officer.” I heard a woman suddenly call out from the street. Looking over, I saw an older White woman waving at her new hero from the car she was driving, before rejoining the natural flow of traffic. I cannot begin to describe just how reassuring that was. To know there was an adult, happily congratulating another adult for forcibly detaining us kids for nothing, while pointing a deadly weapon at us, was indescribably uplifting.



Yo, this sidewalk is really hot.” Archon voiced unhappily.



Deal with it.” Was the cop's only reply before he returned to whatever it were he was doing.



This situation lasted for a long while. Us lying there while traffic slowly rolled by staring at us. Just as I was beginning to wonder if this was all a secret experiment to record what would give out first; our skin on the hot sidewalk, or our sense of dignity in the face of such humiliating treatment, the cop acknowledged an update over the radio then returned to us.



Alright. You are all free to go.” The cop said as breezily as one would say; 'Hey, thanks for stopping by. Catch you later.'



Now, can you please tell us what this was all about?” I asked after getting to my feet, and beginning to dust off my now very dirty clothing. My palms, and forearms were stinging from having been on that hot pavement for an extended amount of time.



Five suspects broke into a house. Reports said they were potentially Latino or Pakistani.” The officer explained with a straight face.



There was a palpable moment of utter disbelief that silently ignited between Dolos, Archon, and I, as we exchanged looks of bitter skepticism. It was Dolos who began laughing rather humorlessly as he turned and began walking back towards the tracks.



Right.” I said after looking between my friends and then back to the cop.



What?! There are only three of us, we're Black, and-- fuck it. Never mind. Not like you give a damn anyway.” Archon waved the explanation off and began following after Dolos.



I am only doing my job, kid.” The cop replied with an unapologetic tone while slipping on his mirror shades.



Whatever gets you through the night, officer.” I shook my head, then turned and followed after my friends. After all that, none of us were in the mood for pizza, or video games anymore.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Incomplete Soldier II

                       Basic Training was a carnival of cruelty, pain, and exhaustion. In all my life, perhaps excluding only funerals, I cannot recall another time I have witnessed so many adults openly weeping. Some terrible part of me truly enjoyed the chaos of it all. There was something extremely exhilarating about such physical training, be it the obstacle courses, working out, or training with the SAW. It would be a lie to say there were not times I found myself dusty, muddy, sweaty, and exhausted, while idly wondering to just how I could have gotten myself into such a stupid situation. Yet, those times were brief, because training was mostly filled with a lot of energy and excitement.

Just over a weeks into basic, I was unanimously selected to lead my company, which also meant I carried the training guidon during marches. While the position of “company lead” was less official than that of a department store greeter, I was still immensely honored and humbled to be selected for such. The feeling of having so many people believe in your abilities to lead, solve problems, and aid others, is such an indescribably amazing feeling. With this title came added responsibilities, and coordinating with five other Privates who were selected as platoon leads.

My new duties included keeping morale, resolving conflicts, pushing my fellow Privates to accomplish whatever goals were assigned to us, making sure everyone understood orders, and answering questions concerning said orders, instructions, or what was required. Basically, it was all chores the Drill Sergeants were probably more than pleased not to deal with on a less routine basis.

I managed to form a surprising connection with much of my company. Many of them came to realize they could always talk to me about a problem, or self doubts, when the time allowed it. I tried to constantly encourage everyone to stay the course. Many of them, even the few who were older than myself, began referring to me as “the Old Man”, because there was a commonly shared perspective that I spoke, and conducted myself as someone much older. It was flattering...at least, in a way.

Originally, after basic, and AIT, my duty station was to be somewhere in North Korea. Such initially sounded rather exciting, however after making so many friends, it felt increasingly crummy knowing a majority of them were going to Iraq without me. I found myself struggling with the idea of so many others going off to face danger, while I would go somewhere relatively safe.

When I first approached a couple of my Drill Sergeants about changing my duty station, in order to follow the rest of the platoon, such was dismissed. Yet, I persisted whenever the chance arose, and finally one of them, DS Andarata, explained I would need to speak with administration. She, and the 1st Sergeant, said they would help arrange an appointment for such.

On one particularly clear, but extremely cold, early morning, the entire company gathered outside before the barracks, preparing for a long march, as the sun was just starting to dilute the once dark sky. We had done such before, but what made this one different, was that we were going to preform such in full gear as to experience what it was like to be on the move while carrying so much weight.

After I was done preparing my on things, and DS Andrata inspected such to make sure it was aligned exactly with the standards of the diagram explaining what belonged where, she only nodded her approval, then instructed me to begin aiding others. Following orders, I began moving from group to group, offering aid where I could, and making sure their own gear prepared correctly. It was only a short time later that I found myself moving over to a group I was more personally familiar with.

There was Pvt. Neith, a slender, dark skinned, African-American girl, fresh out of high school, and a former varsity basketball player. With her bright smile, and almond-shaped, brown eyes, a lot of the guys use to comment on how pretty she was. Next to her was Pvt. Leliel, a blond, blue-eyed, Caucasian kid, from Alaska, who was hoping the Army would help him figure out his life. A lot of the women frequently said he was “striking”. Oddly enough, he and Neith were quite close. It was quietly rumored they were a bit more than squad mates. Of course that sort of thing was strictly forbidden during basic training, so it remained just that, an unsubstantiated rumor. Standing across from them was Specialist Pan, a tall, gangly, Caucasian guy a couple of years older than me, but extremely goofy, loud, and quick with jokes. Pvt. Gorgon, a short Latino kid from New Mexico, was knelled near them still gathering his gear.

“Andarata? Oh, man. She's fine as hell!” Pan was saying to Gorgon just as I arrived.

“And we're off.” Leliel shook his head.

“You might want to stop talking like that. I doubt the Drill Sergeant would appreciate that if he heard you.” Neith warned.

“Hey, its Williams!” Pan exclaimed before grinning as he motioned to where DS Andrata stood near another group. “I know 'the old man' will back me up on this! Isn't Andrata sexy as fuck?”

“I tend not to make it a habit of checking out any of the Drill Sergeants.” I replied while helping Gorgon get his rucksack in order.

“Oh, come on, Williams! You mean to tell me you never noticed?” Pan snorted in belief.

“I tend to try and keep busy, Pan. Much like you should be doing right now.” I advised.

“Well-- that is sort of true. Andrata is pretty hot.” Gorgon spoke up reluctantly.

“For fuck sake, don't encourage him.” Leliel openly groaned.

“Pan isn't completely full of crap this time. Andrata is hot.” Pvt. Taurus chimed in as he suddenly arrived. He was a tall, burly, Latino kid, also fresh out of high school, and a former varsity football player.

“See! See! No man can't not notice an ass like that!” Pan continued with a longing sigh.

“What if he's gay?” I partially joked as I moved to inspect Neith's rucksack. She watched Pan with an obvious look of disgust on her face but I doubt he stopped talking long enough to notice.

“Well, first I feel sorry for that fuckin fairy. And second, I'm not gay, so I get to notice what a fine ass she has.” Pan smirked.

“Wow. I wish she could just punch you right in the face.” Neith shook her head.

“Its cool! I like it rough!” Pan retorted with a grin.

“Come on, dude. Seriously, you need to chill on that.” Leliel explained more seriously.

“If she can make fatigues hot, you know she's got a body.” Taurus followed.

“Don't join in on his pervert party.” Neith frowned at Taurus before turning to me. “Williams, aren't you going to say something?”

“Ignore him, Private Neith. He's not worth the energy. To me, Pan's constant talking is a mild buzz somewhere in the background. We have to be absolutely ready before formation is called. I suggest you focus on that.” I explained to her while helping another Private who came over.

“Dude, come on. She's married, and even has a small kid.” Leliel explained with increased irritation. “And on top of all that, she's one of the Drill Sergeants. Respect her rank”

“Its not like he's raping her or some shit.” Taurus laughed in disbelief. “He's just saying she's fine.”

“What's wrong with me saying I would bang Andrata if I got the chance?” Pan asked with feigned indignation.

Just as I looked up to tell Pan to shut up, and return to preparing his gear, I caught sight of DS Woden approaching the group from behind. When I stood to call “At Ease”, he quickly caught my eyes and simply shook his head. I remained silent and returned to helping others. Drill Sergeants seemed to really enjoy sneaking up on Privates. DS Woden, a veteran of three different campaigns, was a tall, Caucasian man with dark eyes, and a shaved head. He was always extremely harsh but also one of the fairest Drill Sergeant's assigned to our company.

From the direction he was approaching, only I, and possibly Gorgon was able to see him. All the others had their backs to him. I suddenly felt nervous for Pan, while he could be an irritating loud mouth, I still feared what would happen if he was caught speaking such things.

“How is it my fault that I noticed a sexy woman? I'm a guy! We see shit like that!” Pan continued even as D.S Woden came to a stop a mere few feet behind him. “Who wouldn't want to fuck Andrata? Shit! I know I would if she gave me half the chance! I wouldn't give a shit if she was married!”

“So, you want to fuck, D.S Andrata?” D.S Woden finally made his presence known. Pan was a pale guy, but to this day, I can clearly recall the way he grew all the whiter as his eyes widen, and he turned to face one of the worse-case scenarios. The entire group fell silent under the epic weight of a collective, “Oh shit!” moment.

“Drill Sergeant-- no-- I was-- no not-- I wasn't.” Pan stammered fearfully as he took a tentative step backwards.

“No, no, Specialist Pan. There is no reason to be shy. She is a woman, and you are a man after all. How can you resist talking about wanting to fuck her.” Woden feigned understanding as his eyes raked over him.

“Drill Sergeant-- I, I was only--” Pan shook his head and moved another step back.

“At ease!” D.S Woden suddenly snapped at him causing Pan to instantly assume the ordered stance. “Now, what is it you were saying?”

“It was a joke! It was just a joke, Drill Sergeant! I swear to God.” Pan tried to explain.

“Oh. It was just a joke?” D.S Woden seemed to ponder such for a few seconds. “Oh. Now I get it. That is really funny, Specialist Pan. Hey, its so hilarious, that I just want to share it with my old friend, Andrata.” With that her partially turned towards where she was standing some distance away. “D.S Andrata, are you free?”

“Yes. What do you need, D.S Woden?” Andrata responded.

“I just need you to hear this really hilarious joke, by Specialist Pan.” Woden explained before turning back to Pan.

Our group watched tensely as she approached. I could not see Pan's face, but who needed to in order to know he was terrified. I think if any of us were dismissed, most would have hurriedly left the potential blast radius as quickly as possible. Yet, there was perhaps a morbid curiosity to what terrible results were about to occur. Like watching a car speeding towards a brick wall.

“So, what is this great joke?” D.S Andrata inquired upon arriving and folding her arms behind her back.

“Oh, I wouldn't do it justice if I were to try and tell it.” D.S Woden smiled in a rather humorless way at Pan. “Go on, Pan. Tell her.”

“Drill Sergeant-- I wasn't.” Pan's voice was low with fear.

“Tell her, now.” D.S Woden ordered more firmly.

“I-- I was just saying-- I was saying she was attractive.” Pan replied quietly.

“No, no. You are not telling it right, Specialist. Tell her what you were saying, Specialist Pan. If I have to repeat myself again, you are going to hate life for weeks.” D.S Woden's eyes narrowed.

“I--” Pan began again reluctantly. “I said Drill Sergeant Andrata was sexy-- and I wanted to fuck her.”

“I can barely hear this idiot.” D.S Andrata remained stone-face as her eyes searched him over like a pair of threatening daggers. It was more than clear she heard him.

“Speak up.” D.S Woden ordered sharply.

“I said,” Pan began again much louder, but also with a tremble in his voice. “I-- I said Drill Sergeant Andrata was sexy, and I wanted to fuck her-- but I swear-- I swear I was only joking.”

“That is hilarious.” D.S Andrata responded flatly as she continued starring into him.

“Told you it would be.” D.S Woden agreed with a similar humorless sort of tone.

“Why are we keeping this hilarious joke to ourselves? I would feel selfish if the other Drills Sergeants, and even the 1st Sergeant, didn't have a chance to laugh with us.” D.S Andrata explained before she began to look about, then calling the others.

During this entire exchange, I did nothing more than continue waiting for the enviable. It was absolutely no secret that even causing mild annoyance to the Drill Sergeants could result in the entire company getting 'smoked'. Now, seeing that both D.S Woden, and D.S Andrata were clearly, if even quietly pissed, I was truly dreading what sort of punitive consequences were in store for all of us. So, I silently, if even begrudgingly resigned myself to the fact that it was going to be a long, long, long day.

Then a miracle happened. Something that felt so magical, that even if I had learned, at that very moment, it was just discovered Christmas and Halloween somehow got together, then had a baby, that resulted in a new holiday filled with masks, lights, treats and presents; it would have still been only the second most magical thing to occur that day.

“I suggest you all move along, Williams. I want everyone ready in exactly 10 minutes. Absolutely no excuses.” D.S Woden finally acknowledge me once more without looking away from Pan.

“Yes, Drill Sergeant.” I nodded, and despite being stunned, I gathered up all the other Privates, who seemed more than happy to escape what was happening.

Somehow, against the odds, the company was not going to suffer with Pan. Why? Maybe their coming anger was so intense that it needed a single focal point to be released on? Maybe they realized it was only Pan who screwed-up? Or maybe they were just so pissed that they decided to forgo protocol and pour all their wrath on that one guy? Honestly, who gives a hell? There was no way I was going to stick around and question good fortunes.

As we hurried off, all the other Drill Sergeants, and the 1st, were beginning to arrive to hear this new 'hilarious joke' that was suddenly all the rave. I was more than certain not a single one among them was going to laugh at the punchline, regardless of how it was delivered. Specialist Pan was made to regret everyday for over a week.

I almost felt sorry for him. Almost.